Paddy Roe (with Stephen Muecke), Gularabulu. Crawley, WA: University of Western Australian Publishing, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-74-258-927-5
This book makes a remarkable contribution to the growing tradition of publishing First Nations storytelling from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Paddy Roe, along with Stephen Muecke and Krim Benterrak, first gave us Reading the Country: Introduction to Nomadology (Fremantle Arts Centre Press) in 1984 (with a revised edition printed in 1996). This is a beautifully illustrated book that celebrates the storytelling tradition of such elders as Paddy Roe (and Butcher Joe). More recently Stuart Cooke edited and translated George Dyungayan’s Bulu Line: A West Kimberley Song Cycle (Puncher & Wattmann, 2014) and Terri-Anne White collaborated with Kankawa Nagarra Olive Knight to bring us The Bauhinia Tree (UWAP, 2015). To such literary works we could add the powerful feature film Mad Bastards (Screen Australia, Screen NSW, Screenwest & Bush Turkey Films, 2010) and the richly evocative song lyric & ballad tradition of the Pigram Brothers.
As Stephen Muecke writes in his introduction to Reading the Country: “the plains [and coastal areas of the Kimberley] have been silent for quite a while” (15), as the Traditional Owners have been dispossessed and persecuted. Muecke continues: “This book breaks that silence for a moment: voices speak … It was Paddy Roe initially who had this desire to speak, to tell the story of his country once again” (15). And so in Gularabulu, Muecke continues this collaboration with Paddy Roe, to bring us Indigenous Australian storytelling as it actually sounds.
Muecke writes in his introduction to Gularabulu: “Paddy Roe is celebrated as a storyteller in the great tradition of literature on the Australian continent … [showing us how] Indigenous communities have maintained their ancient heritage in various types of song, performances, and epic narratives” (1). In celebrating Roe as this legendary oral storyteller, Muecke has devised numerous strategies to help the reader “hear” these stories as Roe intended. Muecke writes:
Storytelling is not a dying art … but in traditional Aboriginal societies it had more jobs to do. Knowledge was not extracted from experience and put on the shelf in books, it had to be maintained by telling the stories over and over, often in conjunction with work, like making a boomerang. This is why you will see sounds like “rasping” indicated in the stories here, as Paddy makes an artifact with new tools. Storytelling patterns rise and fall with the rhythmic breathing of the body, and with the to and fro movements of working arms. Listeners chip in with a phrase or two; laughter regularly punctuates the narration, and this pleasure is our reward for following the storyteller as he takes us on his errant pathways. (3).
In transcribing the stories, Muecke has divided the written texts into lines whenever the narrator has paused for breath. The length of this pause is indicated, at each line end, by one dash for each second of pause. Hesitations in mid-line are indicated by commas, with extended vowels, “growls”or breathy expressions indicated by adding more letters to the extent of one per second. Muecke also provides useful guides to pronunciation and glossaries of Language words that have crept into the Aboriginal English. So the first story in Gularabulu begins:
well these people bin camping in Fisherman Bend him and his
missus you know –
Fisherman Bend in Broome, karnun —
we call-im karnun —
soo, the man used to go Fishing all time —
get food for them, you know, food, lookin’ for tucker –
an’ his, his missus know some Malaybloke was in the creek,
Broome Creek —
boat used to lay up there —
so this, his missus used to go there with this Malay bloke –
one Malay bloke, oh he’s bin doin’ this for —
over month —
Aboriginal English is a glorious linguistic invention-giving testament to dynamic contemporary First Nations cultures. And as a professional linguist, Muecke is very successful in celebrating this, but I cannot understand why he has normalised the spelling. I realise that this makes for slightly easier reading but a phonetic approach to spelling gives far greater clue to intended pronunciation. I do not know the Kimberley region but in the Northern Territory’s Gulf of Carpentaria, where I do have many family and friends, Aboriginal English is one consequence of colonialism. As First Nations were dispossessed, with people from different language groups forced into living with each other, the emergence of a common tongue was inevitable. This Aboriginal English has maintained many of the speech patterns and grammar of Yanyuwa, Gudanji, Garrawa and Mara. It has also preserved much of their vocabulary, especially for describing family relationships and the names of bush tucker and medicine. And a more phonetic approach to spelling gives the reader a more authentic ear to how this language sounds. So when working with storytellers from the Gulf I have adopted the following approach to spelling in a poem asserting the rodeo’s pride:
we bin get up an hab-im gooda one feed
us mob so mad rowdy
no one bare foot on tis shiny one best of day
us mob all cowboy boot, bull hide hat, silky showoff shirt,
trouser an chaps wid mad one colour of fringe an fray
we bin jumin the mudika
an we bin go race rodeo ground
mimmi an kukudi bin come too
an dey bin singin us mob bullocky dreamin song
dey bin learnin us mob
for to sing im an everyone deadly safe
we like learn for singin us mob song
for ceremony, culture, land an law
millad mob strong in dat rodeo an in dreamin us proud
This is my approach and I know how much I have to learn from the strategies developed by Muecke. As he shows:
Presenting the stories as narrative art is a way of justifying a writing which tries to imitate the spoken word. When language is read as poetic, it is the form of the language itself, as well as its underlying content, which is important. Just as it would be unjustifiable to rewrite a poet’s work into “correct” English … so it would be unjustifiable to rewrite the words of Paddy Roe’s stories (9).
Of the nine stories that Roe and Muecke present in Gularabulu there are tales of maban or clevermen and of their magical transformations into various animal forms; there is love, and illicit love, and the payback of jilted lovers; there is hunting prowess and cautionary tales of hunting restrictions; and there are journeys, ghosts and devils. These are stories richly evocative of a world separated from most non-Indigenous Australians. And they give testament to an authoritative and vibrant narrative voice. “Duwayigarra” tells of a young man who elopes with a maban’s wife. The maban man pursues the young lovers eventually sending his power through lightning as particularly climatic payback:
ooh they know lightning everywhere –
biig lightning, everywhere strike –
these man comin’ ooh still long way from creek —
very hard —
they come they had big load too fish –
so this lightning now –
rain rain rain rain rain jus’ pouring –
now ONE LIGHTNING COME –
he strike –
he strike right underneath this woman –
you know ah –
lift-im up –
chuck-im outside –
pieces and guts, head –
oh liver heart everything –
aall pieces everywhere –
This dramatic story does raise one concern for the collection, however, in that three of the nine stories involve violence against women as a central motif. Here the murder of women, who are perceived to have been unfaithful to their partners, is condoned as acceptable payback. I don’t want to censor First Nations Culture but maybe some interrogation of these values is called for. Kankawa Nagarra, for instance, has certainly advocated for this examination when she tells the story of her life in The Bauhinia Tree. She highlights how sexist Traditional Law in the Kimberley could be, and while her memories of infanticide and enforced marriage of young girls, or “bride capture with a club”, might be contradicted by Liz Conor in her groundbreaking cultural history, Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women (UWAP, 2016), the treatment of women in Roe’s stories does require some scrutiny.
Gularabulu is a spectacular continuation in the tradition of First Nations storytelling from the Kimberley. Roe’s collaboration with Muecke to make these oral narratives accessible in book form while maintaining the exuberance of the storytelling as it actually sounded is groundbreaking. These stories celebrate the continuing vibrancy of First Nations culture after colonisation, empowering Indigenous storytellers, and allowing readers to encounter the proud strength and intellect of First Australians.
Phillip Hall lives in Melbourne’s Sunshine where he is a passionate member of the Western Bulldogs Football Club. He is a poet and essayist who writes for such publications as Cordite Poetry Review, Southerly, Plumwood Mountain, Verity La and Westerly. He loves to cheer.